‘Being different’ can make you fair game

Thursday November 8, 2012

http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2012/11/8/focus/12278203&sec=focus

Musings
By Marina Mahathir

Our schools are no longer a safe space for our children because adults have decreed that certain children may be subject to discrimination.

RECENTLY, a 14-year-old boy was set upon by two schoolboys at a bus stop and beaten so badly that he died. His crime? He “walked funny”.

I read this story about this incident in Malacca and my heart bled for every mother involved in this case.

I cried for the mother who lost her only son, and I also cried for the other mothers forced to face the fact that their sons had blood on their hands. All of them must be wondering the same thing: Why?

I can posit a theory why. In our country today, we now have an atmosphere where we do not tolerate anyone different.

Our schools have no longer become a safe space for our children because adults have decreed that certain children may be subject to discrimination.

Indeed, the very people who should be there to protect our children have even put up “guidelines” on which children to pick on. In particular, those boys who don’t seem “boy” enough and those girls who don’t seem “girl” enough.

The result is that our children, taking the cue from adults, thus feel they can pick on any of their schoolmates who fit these “descriptions”, as amorphous as they may be, with impunity.

They know full well that if they did anything to those children, then adults will not only not punish them, they may even praise and reward them.

The lack of outrage that this murder has happened is telling. Are we saying that any boy who “walks funny” is fair game? What other quirk may attract violence?

Bullying has really become an epidemic in our schools. Every week or so, we see reports of all sorts of incidents of bullying, where some schoolchildren pick on others, usually those who are defenceless and weak. Or children who become so scared to go to school that they become very stressed out, even sometimes to the point of suicide.

Yet so little is being done to stop these incidents. We don’t even seem interested to know why they happen.

Are our schools over-crowded? Do our kids think of schools as safe spaces or as battlefields that they have to negotiate every day? How does any child learn anything if they are scared of school?

Bullying does not happen in a vacuum. Children learn from adults. If they see adults using bullying as a way of exercising power, then that is exactly the type of behaviour they will emulate.

There is no shortage of bully power in the adult world around them, so why should we be surprised that children become bullies?

A friend I know told the story of how he was bullied at school just because he had slit eyes and was mistaken for another race. Where would children get the idea that this is acceptable?

Bullying is also a form of self-protection. If a child perceives that certain physical traits or behaviours are likely to attract the attention of bullies, what better way to deflect attention and at the same time protect himself or herself than by becoming a bully as well?

Has the Education Ministry come up with any guidelines on the prevention of bullying in school?

It must start with defining what bullying is and making it clear that all forms of bullying, whether physical, verbal or emotional, is unacceptable. And that it is not to be tolerated, whether it is by students or teachers.

But then adults often face bullying in the workplace, which sometimes comes in the form of sexual harassment, yet we still do not have a law against it.

So how can we hope to deal with it in schools when we won’t deal with it in adulthood? I think it is high time the most impacted people fought back. That’s schoolchildren and mothers. School­children should form anti-bullying clubs in schools to find ways to deal with the issue, both to prevent it and to protect one another.

Instead of always having teachers advise them what to do, they should come up with the solutions themselves because only they know what an unsafe school atmosphere feels like. There are NGOs that can facilitate this.

Mothers should start a new movement called something like Mothers Against Bullying.

We love our children and don’t want them to suffer in school, so we need to take action. We need to show our children that their safety and well-being at school is our concern, not just their grades.

Mothers have to demand this before more of our children are hurt or killed.

But the best prevention really is a social environment that is understanding, tolerant and respectful of differences. Do we have that these days?